Category Archives: Personal
My three week stint in Paris draws to an end tomorrow. It’s been a work trip peppered with lots of outings with family, though they did way more sight seeing and touristy activities than me. That’s what they have been here for. As for me, I have thoroughly enjoyed having solo time at work. This is a luxury in India, where the work place is a juggling act involving much more than the core components of research like fieldwork, analysis, reading and writing. Much time is spent in project and team management and in attending meetings and conferences too. I enjoy all that buzz as well, so carving out time for more solitary kind of work has been very challenging indeed!
Here in Paris, the work environment has been conducive for solo activity, though I share an office space with two other researchers, both senior to me from whom I am learning a lot through observation and everyday conversations. The solitude has helped me increase my concentration span and somewhat improve my ability to schedule work more realistically. It has also taught me the value of reading beyond my subject, something I have wanted to do for a long time. The importance of embarking on a PhD at this stage in life has come home to me as well, as I interact with academic researchers at various stages of their careers.
For the most part, I find my colleagues here immensely focused and dedicated to their own sliver of research (though not in a restrictive way). PhD students and scholars working on remote Asian and African nations have spent years teaching themselves new languages, delving deep into understanding the cultural traditions and political economy of faraway lands as well as spending vast amounts of time physically experiencing these geographies and cultures. As a relatively new entrant to social science research, I realize my training as an urban planner somewhat limits my attitudes because I tend to focus on solution-oriented approaches without adequately steeping myself in the context. This is a drawback I am determined to address going forward.
Being outside my comfort zone and a change of scenario also helps me reflect on myself in other, more personal ways. My time here has strengthened by belief that life must be a delicate balance of self-confidence and humility. The former in the sense that I imbibe the importance of being myself, not judging myself too harshly, not overthinking everyday decisions and certainly not worrying about appearances or what other folks think of you! This has been a work in progress for the last few years and its got a fillip here in Paris. Humility in the sense of being open to new ideas, really listening through when other people talk, opening out the senses without judgement and leaving the ‘I’ out of as much a possible. To be honest, I have not progressed as much in this because temperamentally I am the talker/do-er/impression-maker type. Stepping back and toning down when I need to is something I am aware of but have not been able to practice as well.
All in all, these reflections form the base for my second stint here in September this year. I will be unaccompanied by family or friends then and will be living alone for a month for perhaps the first time in my life (yes, believe it or not!). During that trip, I intend to catch up on the missed out parts of tourism, the alternate experiences in Paris and also work much more on my journey towards serious and focused research.
No matter how confident you are about your parenting skills, the impending teens are just sheer trouble. And it’s not about the kids. They’re doing what they do. Procrastinating, wasting time, shuffling along, despondent. Or on overdrive, wanting to overachieve, pushing you over the edge. But what do you do?
Try to be there for them, is the advice I get. But what does that mean? Does that mean be a silent supporter, opining only when asked, standing around in case you need to have their back when they are in trouble? Or does that mean being the dragon mum, actively helping them work through issues, holding them to deadlines, negotiating time schedules? Neither of the two is a comfortable position. Are you doing too little, or too much? And then there is the issue of losing your cool. For when you get there, the battle is surely lost.
A wise friend told me to not overthink it. She said I have to trust that the kids will eventually be more like the parents in terms of their values and mental make-up. While that is comforting, do I not get the chance to alert them of my own shortcomings? Can I tell them what they should not be doing, tell them about the errors I made?
I’ve been thinking (no I cannot not do the overthink!) about this for a few weeks now and I think each one of us has a teen inside us. At the core, I still feel the urge to defend myself even when I know I’m not right. I still gravitate towards those who agree with me, while dismissing folks with a contrary opinion. I still think people who judge me are uncool. I still struggle with setting goals from time to time. Have issues with planning my time and even occasional ego hassles with co-workers and friends. Yes, some bit of me is still a teen, part-time sulker, part-time enthu cutlet!
And so, I will listen to the wise ones and try and lead by example. Focus on my goals and stay calm. Leave the door open. And hope my sanity does not walk out through it!
Amma + Amma = Amamma
It’s a month today since her passing. I know she’s gone, but I still haven’t fully registered her absence. It struck me this past weekend, as mum and me sorted out her sarees, and her scent wafted around the room, that it isn’t possible to really comprehend the death of a loved one. We try, we pretend to be all pragmatic and grown up about it. We talk, we share memories, we laugh. And then, one day, in an unexpected moment, we find our cheeks wet and our hearts heavy. We find we cannot breathe very well for a few moments. Then things appear in focus again. And life goes on.
At least that’s how it has been with me this past month. The thing is, Amamma and me have always been very close. She was a second mother to me through my early childhood when I spent two years with my grandparents in Delhi while my parents were abroad. I followed her around like a puppy dog in my growing years when they lived in Bangalore, loving the scents and flavours of her divine cooking, inhaling the aromas of freshly ground coffee and the freshly picked jasmines from her garden. She had a beautiful voice and my best memories are of Amamma singing her morning prayers even as she went about doing her chores. A busybee if there was one! She taught me how to do a mean kollam and everyday of the summer vacations that I spent with them, she encouraged me and guided me in making better designs.
She was the one who pampered me during my 10th and 12th grade Board Exams, rustling of my favourite eats and handing me coffee in a flask before turning in at night, knowing I could be up studying. Even in college, when she lived alone in Chennai, I remember visiting her from college in Delhi to spend time with her. She was a good sport, accompanying me to Kancheepuram to study traditional homes for my B.Arch dissertation way back in ’98. In recent years, she has been in Gurgaon living in the adjacent building with my mum. Though the roles were reversed and it was me checking in on her every now and then, we shared an easy bond with much laughing and cuddling involved.
My relationship with Amamma was different in a very marked way from nearly all other relationships in my life. We never shared an intellectual relationship, even in part. Instead, our bond had a deep aesthetic and emotional foundation. I have known for a long time, and this has only been reinforced by the sort of memories that have surfaced recently, that I derived my love for the beautiful things in life largely from her. She shaped my aesthetic tastes in a very profound manner. In my deep comfort with music, in my enjoyment of religious rituals despite my agnostic position on religious belief, and most markedly in how I choose to dress. Her grace and beauty, inside and out, left an impression on me right from my early years. My love for dressing up, for beautiful clothes and traditional jewellery is entirely a result of her grooming and her generosity.
I see now how I’ve styled myself after her time and again, and this was brought home to me during the #100sareepact I was part of in 2015. Being the only grandchild with so much access to her, I’ve benefited from numerous handouts from her cupboard through my life-bits and pieces of jewellery, scarves, perfumes, and of course, sarees…..Each piece came with a story, a nugget of wisdom, a bit of gossip from her past. Through the years, I have constructed a veritable tapestry of her life experiences, from her childhood to her life as a wife and mother. Even those stories, unraveling from her sarees and jewelry, have been an invaluable education.
When I woke up this morning, I wanted to make today special. I wanted to clear the haze of grief and celebrate the zest and spirit that she had always had for life. I wore her saree, one of those many that have made the journey from her cupboard to mine over the years. I felt her warmth, I smiled her smile, I felt beautiful.
In the rumble-tumble, scramble-ramble life that I lead, moments of reflection are snatched and savoured like rich Belgian chocolate. As I end the first day of 2017, I am filled with gratitude for the year gone by.
At a personal level, 2016 was a spectacular year for me, a year marked by extraordinary focus on research and learning, a year of achieving clarity in terms of not just my career but also how I see myself. It was a year that saw me blur the lines between mother, daughter, colleague and wife and make giant strides towards being just me, regardless and in spite of all of those relationships. A year in which I grew that thick skin that I had been wanting for so long, the type that accepts constructive criticism but stonewalls any negativity that does not teach me anything.
A year in which I leaped ahead and simply assumed that the safety nets would be there when I fell. And miraculously they were! People in my life who held me together, supported me in ways never imagined before. Events that unfolded before me unplanned.
A record year for travel, especially international. I visited Shenzhen in China, made three trips to Indonesia- one to Bali with friends, to Surabaya for a UN conference and then a whirlwind 12 day work trip covering 5 cities in that vast and fascinating archipelago. To top that, the dream trip to Quito in Ecuador did materialize and a short hop in Amsterdam and Paris was like the icing on the cake! I soaked in this travel year like a sponge, reveling in the new sights and sounds and smells, the conversations, the energy that comes with endless novelty. I fell in love with people and places, cultures and architecture all over again. I learned to pack better, plan better and be more organized. I also learned to un-plan and un-think and let things unravel. More importantly, on my travels I was reminded repeatedly of the inherent goodness of people, the sheer beauty of this world. And so, I have been filled with hope and positivism even as I have despaired and feared this year, as political and social events in India and abroad have threatened to shake the very foundations of what I believe in- rationality, humanism, equality, empathy and love.
I know the year ahead will be full challenges, but I feel far more prepared than I have ever felt before. For once, I seem to have accepted that things will be crazy, that there will be serious limits, that it is in my nature to go off script and that there is always learning in that. I feel less pressurized by the passage of time. I turned 40 this year, and that number sits very well with me, urging me to focus on quality, to savor the experience, to run my own unique race.
There is much to be done this year and I have my hands full. I pray for balance, for the ability to unplug and reset myself, for objectivity and for resilience. I pray for good health for everyone around me, I pray for sanity for the world. But most of all, I pray that we can all become children again for a few precious moments in this year ahead, so that we may remember that it all can be very very simple and yet extremely complex at the same time; that there is no contradiction, or that contradiction is the point!
Happy New Year everyone!
At the end of a busy day, it was refreshing to go to my mum’s place for a special dinner yesterday. Ma had made a special effort to put together a simple but tasty version of the Onam Sadya, the traditional feast eaten during the Onam festivities in Malayali homes (and now, as food becomes a popular medium of social connection, everywhere!).
Before we sat down to dinner, Amamma gathered us together before her deities for a few moments. She used her walker and slowly lowered herself onto a chair in front of her puja ensemble. She gave us instructions and we performed the traditional aarti together. And then, to our delight, she asked my kids if they knew the story of Mahabali and Onam. Without waiting for a response, Amamma launched into an enthusiastic narration of the legend of Mahabali. With a liberal use of words from Tamil, peppered with Malayali expressions and strung together by some English and Hindi, her narration was driven more by her expressions and gestures than words. The children listened in rapt attention and so did we. Partly because mythology and legend is ever fascinating, but more because the act of storytelling had transformed Amamma from a placid, pleasant and largely inactive old lady into an animated, beautiful and expressive matriarch.
In those few minutes, I watched my children’s reactions but simultaneously I regressed to being a four year old in Amamma’s care, being fed and nurtured by her warmth, enjoying her wonderful cooking and listening to her unending stories about her life and times. That relationship with her remained through my life but of late has stagnated because she, sadly, has withdrawn into a shell born out of partial deafness and an uprooting from her native environment to Gurgaon where language and cultural context are drastically different.
The image of Amamma telling the story has lingered in my mind all morning and I’m thinking of the immense value that grandparents and great-grandparents bring to children’s lives. I worry about the problems arising out of an increasing focus on English, how grandparents are no longer able to communicate as well to the little ones as they used to in my childhood, when the primary languages at home were of their choice despite the pressures exerted by English-medium schools for us to be fluent in English.
The other thought on my mind is how mythology, while certainly mostly religious in origin, is being increasingly appropriated and intertwined with religion. In Kerala, though, the legend of Mahabali is widely narrated and Onam a statewide celebration across religious communities. Growing up in Lucknow, non-Muslims only missed the namaz bit of Eid, participating fully in the feasting that follows. On Diwali, whether children burst firecrackers was more about the economic status of their parents than their religion. Things seem to have changed today, sadly. Wouldn’t it be cool if we could revive traditions of storytelling and shape them into a collective format so children get to share legends across religious and regional lines, and also maybe share storytelling grandparents?
What is one year in a life lived over a hundred years? Only 365 days or so, one may so. In contrast, a year after the loss of someone so great who lived a century but felt immortal, who looked diminutive but towered over us all with the force of her persona- this year has felt like an eternity.
Ajjee left us a year ago. But she isn’t really gone. She was there when I was born, she was there when I struggled through nights of studying and stress, she was with me when I fought to comprehend the grief of losing my father even as she dealt with her own immeasurable loss. And she is there now.
It isn’t her physical presence, but her immense stoicism that I carry around with me like a lamp with a steady flame. It isn’t her material memory but her vast empathy and broad-mindedness that I try to nurture everyday, and use as a shield against the injustices and pettiness around me. I don’t hear her words when I shut my eyes and think about her, but I feel those bony fingers down my spine telling me that all will be well, that I must have faith and the doors will open.
Our ancestors are all within us, giving us the strength we need to go on, to scale those new heights, to conquer what we set our sights on. And of all of them, Ajjee’s smiling presence is the most comforting of all.
I’m still a bit disbelieving that we pulled off a vacation in Bali as a reunion of our gang at the School of Planning and Architecture and though it was disappointing that more of our inner circle of friends could not make the trip owing to family and work commitments, I’m glad this short break worked out. Traveling for two days and vacationing for three has certainly taken a toll on our sleep cycle and exhaustion levels, but we’ve all come back richer and wiser for making the effort. Reconnecting with friends who know you well, sometime even a tad better than you know yourself, has the peculiar ability of bringing the most challenging aspects of your life into sharp focus even as you revel in gratitude for everything that has worked out well.
For me, the intense discussions we had on an astonishing variety subjects—politics, gender, sexual freedom, family and social structures, tourism, food chauvinism—were not merely informative (on the last night entertaining too, as two among the four of us proceeded to have an enormous noisy contest over the popularity of food from two different regions in India while the other two alternated between collapsing in giggles and worrying about the neighbors waking up and yelling at us!). They helped me look inwards and overhaul some assumptions I’ve been making in life, re-evaluate some priorities, refocus. As I flew the last leg toward home, I realized that experiencing Bali like that, among friends who are well read and intelligent (and opinionated may I add, with the caveat that I wouldn’t have them any other way!) added a certain variety and sharpness to my own perspectives.
Moreover, it made me realize how much strength it’s possible to draw from people you know. To hear about how each friend faced a particular set of adversities is hugely educational. More than that, it is reassuring that I’ve been able to surround myself with people who are die hard optimists, rock solid in their ethics and belief systems (even if rather varied), non-judgemental as well as unconditionally supportive to each other.
In the end, this trip to Bali for which I risked a precious working week and some, was not just a vacation. It was so much more!
Looking through my notes as I write about Shenzhen (I learnt to pronounce it correctly around Day 2 of our trip- it’s Shun-jun for your information), I try to reconstruct the thoughts behind some of these doodles in my notebook. Order, structure, urban forms, technology, the incorporation of nature into cities, human adaptation are some themes I see.
Doodling has been a habit for as long as I remember, predating my training as an architect, usually geometric forms. The doodles usually emerge out of the subconscious, barring the odd sketch of a scene here and there, and its hard to see patterns at times though I keep trying. I’d love to hear about how other people interpret their own doodling. Do share!
In the generally carb-rich Indian diet, namkeen (savoury) mixes occupy a special place. Nearly every part of the country I’ve lived in has its own set of these. In many homes across India, these are homemade at regular intervals and stored in steel dabbas (boxes) to be consumed as snacks at teatime or whenever the hunger pangs get the better of you. In my childhood days in Bombay, for instance, chivda was de rigueur in Maharashtrian homes, a tasty mixture of deep fried flattened rice with coconut slivers and peanuts garnished with curry leaves and red chillies. When we moved to Lucknow, lahiya chana, a quickly rustled up mix of roasted puffed rice and gram was commonly eaten as a healthy snack. Come Diwali and kheel, another type of puffed rice, used for the Lakshmi puja is consumed as freshly roasted mixes for days to come, till stocks last.
In urban Indian households like ours, homemade snacks are fading away and it’s a real pity. There isn’t any time to make them and a variety of snacks, including ‘diet’ items are easily available at the superstore. What’s more, with online ordering, the superstore comes home, so it’s no effort to have a stash of munchies ready at home.
I find that stash does not satisfy me. It’s got too much salt, too much oil and trans fat and I certainly don’t trust the ‘diet’ labels. What’s more, they don’t taste fresh. I find myself craving for the simple namkeens of my childhood. Hence, the Sunday morning frenzy to rustle up these two simple snacks. Neither of these are deep fried, nor are they ‘diet’. They are just normal food, so don’t think too much. Just make them and eat them!
Put a tablespoon of cooking oil in a heated kadhai (anything you can roast stuff in will do, wok like!). To the heated oil, add green chillies (slit don the middle), rai or black sesame seeds and curry leaves, heeng (asafoetida), turmeric powder, red chilli powder, dry pudina powder. Wait till the rai splutters. Add puffed rice and roasted peanuts (you will have to dry roast them before) and mix well. I added to this mix some leftover namkeen that had been bought for a party- sev, moong dal and bhuna chanaa, but this is optional and sicne these are deep fried it does add some serious calories! Add salt as desired. Let this cool and store in air tight boxes, preferably the traditional shiny steel ones for the real desi effect 🙂
Can be stored for a week or two easily.
To a teaspoon of heated oil, add thinly sliced onion and garlic, turmeric powder, whole red chillies, heeng (asafoetida) and dry pudina powder. Let the onions turn brown. Add the kheel and pre-roasted peanuts and stir for 5 minutes. Add salt as desired.
Best eaten fresh, but can be stored for a few days in an air tight container.
As political parties around us continue to appropriate and re-appropriate historic figures from the past in a desperate (and despicable) attempt to reap mileage from their reflected glory, a few days ago we reflected on the idea of revisiting the writings and documentation of some of these resurrected (and often misinterpreted) heroes. Fittingly, we started this journey on Shahid Diwas, a day to mark the martyrdom of the three icons of the revolutionary side of the Indian struggle for Independence- Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev. The idea was connected to a discussion last week between Udai (my nearly 12 year old son) and my mother-in-law on atheism and belief, the chief takeaway being the importance of informed opinion that builds from a knowledge of all possible points of view, not just one’s own position.
In this context, we decided to read Bhagat Singh’s famous Essay titled ‘Why I am an Atheist’, written in October 1930 and available here in an English translation from the Punjabi original. I made Udai read it aloud to us (and several new words were learnt and discussed along the way, but that’s another discussion). I hadn’t read it before either and it was eye-opening. I’m sharing some excerpts that I think are particularly relevant, both to today’s political situation in India and to my immediate objective of expanding the debate within our home.
Questioning the status quo
Udai’s outcries against religion (and many children go through this phase) are almost always based on the idea of the lack of scientific proof that a higher omnipresent power exists. Add to that the idea of what the rational arguments could be for or against the existence of God. Bhagat Singh’s passionate plea in support of his atheism, however, rests on the idea that a periodic critique of existing ideas and beliefs is the only way forward. He writes:
“It is necessary for every person who stands for progress to criticise every tenet of old beliefs. Item by item he has to challenge the efficacy of old faith. He has to analyse and understand all the details. If after rigorous reasoning, one is led to believe in any theory of philosophy, his faith is appreciated. His reasoning may be mistaken and even fallacious. But there is chance that he will be corrected because Reason is the guiding principle of his life. But belief, I should say blind belief is disastrous. It deprives a man of his understanding power and makes him reactionary.
“Any person who claims to be a realist has to challenge the truth of old beliefs. If faith cannot withstand the onslaught of reason, it collapses. After that his task should be to do the groundwork for new philosophy. This is the negative side. After that comes in the positive work in which some material of the olden times can be used to construct the pillars of new philosophy.”
The corollary: When society represses the urge to question and shrinks that space, especially for young people, we also throttle the pathways to progress.
Belief in oneself despite all odds
All atheists I know have an unwavering faith in themselves, including my late father with whom long discussions on the matter of religion and belief systems were a common occurrence. It is not that they are devoid of self-doubt. On the contrary, they have no choice but to work very hard to find conviction within themselves, to question their own actions and motivations frequently and they work to re-focus themselves. It is an exhausting task!
This is because the solace of faith, in which sacrifice and good behaviour is ‘rewarded’ by freedom from re-birth (as in Hinduism) or the experience of paradise (as in Islam, Christianity) is not available to an atheist. Bhagat Singh points this out very clearly as he counters the allegations that atheist is born out of vanity or arrogance. Remember, he wrote this only a day or two before he was sentenced to death.
“Beliefs make it easier to go through hardships, even make them pleasant. Man can find a strong support in God and an encouraging consolation in His Name. If you have no belief in Him, then there is no alternative but to depend upon yourself. It is not child’s play to stand firm on your feet amid storms and strong winds. In difficult times, vanity, if it remains, evaporates and man cannot find the courage to defy beliefs held in common esteem by the people. If he really revolts against such beliefs, we must conclude that it is not sheer vanity; he has some kind of extraordinary strength. This is exactly the situation now. First of all we all know what the judgement will be. It is to be pronounced in a week or so. I am going to sacrifice my life for a cause. What more consolation can there be!”
Some questions raised: Does your religion empower you or does it work as your crutch? Are the positions of atheism and faith contradictory or can they both find space in a broader discussion on morality, empathy and self-empowerment?
What are we learning from Bhagat Singh’s martyrdom and struggle?
It is getting harder and harder to propose empathy and cooperation as strategies to wage a war that is increasingly violent, repressive and chauvinistic, be this the war on terrorism, the war of identities or the war with oneself as young people navigate the complex pathways to economic mobility and ‘success’. There is no patience for this approach, which is perceived as too slow, too risky. The dangers are put forward as imminent, the solutions needed as urgent. The liberal perspective is not exciting, perceived as the bastion of those already comfortable, and run down as impractical for a nation full of impatient youth in a race to get ahead.
But think: Are the dangers we face today any different in urgency that what Bhagat Singh and Rajguru faced in the 1920s? Are the quandaries and moral dilemmas those young men found themselves in any less heart wrenching and difficult? If Bhagat Singh could question what was prevalent, so must young people today. And that is the legacy we must take forward. Not the machismo, not the ‘nationalism’, but the thinking and rationalism that drove it.